“It’s thirteen o’clock.” George Orwell proclaimed that in 1984. What time is it now for Catholic schools? The frequency of school closure announcements stirs an uneasy sense in me that time may gradually run out for Catholic schools. As a former superintendent of Catholic schools in a large urban archdiocese, I deplore this diminished presence of the Catholic Church’s investment in the future.
A Catholic school, at its best, is an academic community of faith. It is a place committed to a mission; it puts a building around the mission and gathers a group of believers invested in its continuity. There is in this school a sense of transcendent purpose. It is a place that strives to model the moral life, what the poet Roethke calls the “daily business of revelation.” Its environment enables a vigorous academic enterprise to flourish without losing its spiritual moorings. Is this too ideal a description? I think not. While every Catholic school is not such a place every day, on most days these schools are special places that give me cause to be proud.
Chicago statistics can give a partial perspective of Catholic school accomplishment here; other dioceses are comparable. The Archdiocese of Chicago’s 312 schools serve almost 128,000 students, 84 percent of whom are Catholic. Schools that serve inner-city Chicago are known as Big Shoulders schools, named for the fund that helps to sustain them financially. There are 114 of these schools. Test scores give one dimension of accomplishment. Archdiocese test scores for grades 3, 5 and 7 are above the national norm in all categories. ACT scores for secondary schools are at or above the national norm in all categories.
Catholic, public, private and charter schools all must meet the same government requirements. In the required tests, however, students in Catholic schools tend to show a better grasp of that knowledge. I believe Catholic schools have certain characteristics that can account for the positive results.
A Catholic school’s identity as an academic faith community is one characteristic. A Catholic school has the freedom to include spiritual formation in its goals. It does not back away from the reality that gaining knowledge, “getting educated,” often means dealing with religious and moral issues. It is one very real advantage for the schools to openly include religion and values in its curriculum.
A school that forms as a community develops a daily atmosphere that teaches, too. It teaches what it means to have common purpose, mutual care and a sense of responsibility for others. The school community draws special people together with the students: teachers and staff who so believe in the mission that they sacrifice higher salaries elsewhere; parents who pay, beyond taxes, for the value-added schooling; and volunteers who give freely of time and talent. (In Chicago, this year, 13,600 volunteers shared their various gifts.) Such personal investment is abiding evidence to students that both support and expectation are high. Students, faculty, staff and parents learn together what the responsible use of freedom means, how to deal compassionately with success and failure, with authority and power issues, with forgiveness and hope. In a place that works together, learning that is informal makes it easier to learn formal content like math and science and how to read.
Catholic schools also have the advantage of being able to meet specific community needs. Call it innovation or resourcefulness or the survival instinct.
This year the Cardinal Joseph Bernardin School opened in a south suburb of Chicago. Having seen single parishes struggle to sustain a school, four parishes spent long hours negotiating and building this school to serve an area rather than a parish.
Christo Rey Jesuit High School, the first new high school in the archdiocese in 33 years, has initiated a wonderfully creative school for Latino students. Each student earns a portion of the tuition by working one school day a week in a sponsoring corporate office in Chicago’s Loop. A clever scheduling process allows students to complete a full school program and work responsibilities.
Another high school, Josephinum, built decades ago for a large ethnic population, has seen that population diminish. It is now expanding its program to include junior high school students. Such a Catholic school will be unique in Chicago.
Chicago’s ethnic neighborhood schools long ago became multiethnic Catholic schools with creative curricula that works for the particular student body. Saint Thomas of Canterbury School mingles more than 25 ethnic heritages to the learning advantage of all. Curriculum and code of discipline at Saint Thomas differ from those at Saint Angela, where second or third generation African-American Chicagoans struggle to learn in a school on the edge of gang territories. In each case, as in so many others, the unique need of an area calls for a matching response. Catholic schools are free to respond to such a need.
Catholic elementary and secondary schools in affluent areas have different challenges. They can devise programs and collaborations to meet specific needs, unhampered by systemwide public policy that can limit other schools.
Catholic schools are different, in so many ways intrinsic to their reason for being. They set students on the way to becoming learned persons — as all schools aim to do. It is the added dimension that gives soul to the enterprise.
In the Office of Catholic Schools Annual Report 2001, a letter from a graduating eighth grader is quoted:
“Besides the first-class education that I have received, I have also learned countless other things that have turned me into the kind of person I am proud to be . . . these principles I have gained here will help me throughout my life."
A Catholic school has transformative power!
Sister Mary Brian Costello served as superintendent of schools in the Archdiocese of Chicago from 1983-90 and as Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s chief-of-staff from 1990-96.
Archdiocese of Chicago